Saturday, March 4, 2017

Do you review?

What if you threw a party and no one came?

Or what if you published a book and no one read it?

Some of us try for years before finding a publisher for our book, and when we finally succeed, we may think the hard work is over. But the truth is that if we publish with a small or university press, a whole lot of work is just beginning, as we try to make the larger world notice a book’s existence.

Some presses do a better job with promotion than others do. There was a time I contemplated starting a press myself, but I made a decision: Unless I could guarantee strong distribution and promotion, I had no business taking on the sacred trust of publishing a writer’s work.

Truth is, anyone can print up a book. It’s publishing that’s the real trick—a word that means “making public.” The most beautifully produced book is of little worth if it fails to end up in the hands of readers, and every ethical publisher must understand that a book isn’t published until the public knows about it.

One way we try to find readers is to have a book reviewed. Better publishers send out ARCs, advance review copies, either in print or electronically, to people who might be willing to weigh in on a new collection. It’s hard to get the attention of reviewers, and there are a lot of ways to try. 

Here are some ways publishers attempt to get attention for their writers:

  • Craft a news release and media packet to send to electronic and print media outlets associated with the writer’s hometown, current city, alma mater, etc.
  • Send copies to people who are known to review books regularly.
  • Send copies to litmags that review books.
  • Contact national media outlets that feature writers and writing.
  • Send copies with suggested pages marked to places that feature daily poems—e.g., The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, etc.

But then again, publishers may choose not to do any of these things—and then writers are left to their own devices to drum up interest.

I recently had a discussion with some writer friends about how to get reviews for books. A suggestion that came up—and it is one I hear rather commonly—was to exchange reviews in a you-do-me-I’ll-do-you kind of way. 

As a former journalist, with a degree in the subject, I just can’t sign off on this plan, which sounds perfectly practical and solves a problem, because from a journalistic perspective, it is inherently flawed.

Reviewers don’t answer to the people they’re reviewing. Instead, as journalists of sorts, they are fully responsive to their readers. The expectation in doing a review is that the reviewer is unbiased and truthful—and a tit-for-tat interview is simply not trustworthy.

The poetry world is different than, say, the restaurant world. When a reviewer enters the hot new bistro to write an assessment of it, that reviewer is almost never a restaurateur, and the readers of the reviewer’s outlet likewise don’t own restaurants. The reviewer is supposed to have some expertise or understanding in the field, from restaurants to movies to books, being reviewed. But impartiality is presumed, in any field that is subject to review besides small-press literature.

When we read the “Tables for Two” feature in The New Yorker, we trust that the person who finds the ceviche to be zingy isn’t besties with the chef, or that the person who loves the latest Star Wars incarnation isn’t Felicity Jones’ dad.

When we read a review of a poetry collection, we understand that about half the time, the reviewer is pals with the author and is awaiting a review in return.

I’m not sure what the key is to finding audiences for new literary titles. What I do know is that one has to either work hard or be incredibly lucky. It’s not even enough to be talented. Excellent books are ignored all the time. We’re ignoring countless excellent books right this minute.

A lot of creative work vies constantly for our attention. If we love the arts, maybe the kindest thing we can do is share what we love. With literary arts, it may be as simple as a Goodreads review, a social media recommendation, or, the kindest gesture of all, prolonged attention—positive or otherwise—in a careful, detailed review.

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